Cynics, Sociopaths & Garden-Variety Azzholes

Monday, 12:48pm
Reno, NV
Use all your well-learned politics, or I’ll lay your soul to waste.” (Stones, “Sympathy For The Devil”)


Today, I’m gonna share with you one of the nastiest, yet most valuable lessons you’ll ever get in your career.

It’s all about the firestorm of conflicting personality types you’ll encounter in the Big Game O’ Biz. It took me ages to figure all this out (and get it into a simple concept that’s easily explained)… and many, many times it has saved my butt from disaster.

This is the mostly hidden part of being in business. The other fundamentals… honing your skills, dealing with technology, managing moolah… all seem to be fairly straightforward.

If only we didn’t have to deal with human beings to get through the day, everything would be just dandy.

However, sizzling underneath every interaction with another Shaved Ape lies a volcanic pit of emotional, physiological/biological, intellectual and metaphysical goo. Experienced professionals intuitively learn to negotiate this roiling obstacle, eventually… but usually can’t explain what they’re doing. They rely on a code of ethics, first, that eliminates or salvages biz relationships with the most common kinds of crooks and monsters out there.

However, waiting for the other guy to violate your code before jettisoning him from your life means you’re a punching bag while the truth about the human capacity for evil slowly dawns on you. (And most folks never really understand any of this. Which is why the neighbors of the freshly-caught serial killer always express disbelief — “He seemed like a nice guy. Always mowed his lawn. Sure, there were screams from the basement sometimes, but…”)

I studied this stuff — and figured it out — only because I was completely on my own in the early part of my career as a freelance copywriter (where I constantly dealt with new people, and needed all the insight to make quick-yet-correct decisions I could muster). I had a smidgeon of a hint, through an otherwise-worthless psychology degree I snagged in my youth…

… but the real breakthrough came because my quest to become an expert in salesmanship forced me to go deep with how people actually react to a sales pitch. This was my introduction to “street level psychology”… which is as real as you’re gonna get when dealing with people. No academic BS here. This is all about the reality of human-to-human interaction.

My homework included interviewing old-school door-to-door salesmen, studying lots of True Crime books (my favorite: “What Cops Know”), devouring the better gritty novelists (like Joseph Wambaugh, former police detective, and Thomas Harris, “Silence of the Lambs”), while emersing my head in pop behavioral psychology discoveries.

Plus, of course, road-testing everything in the real world as I scored new gigs.

My first lesson: To be a good salesman, you no longer have the luxury of believing the standard-issue nonsense about Life In The Concrete Jungle. You can’t look at the world the way you wish it was, or believe it should be. Instead…

… you deal with how things really are. You observe how people actually behave, regardless of what they say they’ll do, or what they insist are their values.

This can be a shock, at first. We really do have one foot still in the jungle. There is a meta-game going on during every interaction with another human, both consciously and unconsciously — what we say is often cloaked code for what we’ll actually DO (whether we’re lying or believe our own BS whole-heartedly). We ALL strive for respect, abundance, a clear role in the hierarchy, safety and insider knowledge. (This translates, loosely, to greed, fear and gossip.) Not to mention our inherent laziness and aversion to taking responsibility for our actions.

And we are taught to ignore, deny and pretend otherwise. Nope, no duplicity going on here. Move along, nothing to see here.

However — and this is important — shifting your viewpoint to one based in reality does NOT mean you need to be become cynical or a bastard in order to thrive and succeed in biz and life.

On the contrary — once you allow reality to settle in as your main operating system, you can put some real teeth into your integrity, ethics and desire to work fairly in the business world.

You just no longer walk into the dark alleys of life like vulnerable prey.

Removing your wishful goggles allows you to be the kind of ethical warrior who can win. And, rather than despise people for their selfishness and pettiness and fearfulness… you can actually begin to love them for who they really are. Most folks stumble through life half-asleep, easily conned by the happy masks others use to obscure their real intentions. Hating them for this tendency does nothing positive. Understanding their state of mind beneath the mask they present to the outside world, though, changes everything.

Good salesmen, I’ve discovered, actually lead better lives. Because they have to deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it was… and while it’s a bit more work to always be looking behind the masks and reading the meta-text behind all language, once you’ve tasted raw reality, it’s the only way to live.

There’s a library-sized batch of knowledge that comes with being a good entrepreneur…

… but in this post, I’m only gonna deal with the dark side of interpersonal relationships (like the ones you have with clients, prospects, colleagues and competitors). I’ll try to make it short and sweet:

Dark-Side Insight #1: If you are an ethical, rational actor in the game of business (or in life)…

… then you’re operating with 2 strikes already against you. Unless you are fully aware of how your fellow actors are behaving.

Now, everything I’m about to share with you must be balanced against a fundamental truth about business: There is zero need, in our huge economy, to be evil in order to achieve success.

In fact, in the forward to “Kick-Ass Copywriting Secrets of a Marketing Rebel” (grab a copy here), I state emphatically that I hope anyone taking the advice I offer and using it for unethical purposes… rots in Hell.

Get straight on this now: Initial persuasion tactics can work whether you have a good product or a shitty one. However, continued back-end sales (and the “lifetime value” of a new customer) rely on you offering quality stuff. And, since the back-end is where the real money is, it makes no rational sense to choose to have a shitty product to begin with.

Still, at the end of the day, what really counts is that it’s gonna be just you and your conscience trying to get to sleep.

That’s almost the first rule of understanding human behavior: If you’re ashamed of anything you’re doing, then STOP fucking doing it.

Having a good product or service is zero guarantee you’ll succeed. You still have to implement your biz plan, and follow through on your sales funnels. However, when you DO have a good product, you can go full-board on aggressively-successful marketing… knowing you’re performing a service to your fellow humans, providing value, and supporting our shaky civilization and economy. And sleeping well at night.

At first, I couldn’t understand why anyone would CHOOSE to have a shitty product, when there was no inherent reward for doing so in a marketplace that rewards quality.

And yet, the world remained crammed with snake oil and BS and scams.

Which lead me to…

Dark-Side Insight #2: The biz world is not black-and-white.

It’s very nuanced, which is a royal pain in the ass. It would be so cool if there were just good people, and bad people, and you got to choose freely who you worked with (or lived amongst).

But that ain’t the case. In fact, until you get hip to the variety of personalities out there, you’re gonna be conned, disappointed, and even hurt… because the worst of the bad actors LOOK for sleepy, low-information types to take advantage of. They catch you in their sites, they’re happy, and you’re meat.

Here are the 3 main categories I suggest you get familiar with, explained in a quick-guide format:

Cynics. Very high on the annoying-to-hang-out-with scale, but relatively low on the danger scale, are those people around you who are cynical. How they arrived at their cynicism is mundane — they may have been deeply hurt by having their trust violated, their heart broken, or maybe they’ve just been rewarded for being suspicious.

The main problem with cynics, if you’re an entrepreneur (or just trying to live life large), is that they bring massive quantities of Negative Energy to the game. They are pessimists, and they really want you to be one, too. They’re so paranoid that they’d prefer missing an opportunity (by being suspicious right up to the point it’s too late)… than risk being “fooled”.

They operate from the fundamental position that you are full of shit until proven otherwise. (And even then, you’re on permanent probation for life, and your “pass” can be revoked at any time if you fail to live up to the impossible standards they set.) These are the guys who scoffed at the Wright Brothers, because man can’t fly and never will. They brooded over Steve Jobs breakthroughs in tech, and rejoiced at his failures. They are positive that all business transactions are a scam, that all politicians are corrupt, and that you — yes, even kind-hearted you — would murder them in their sleep given the chance to profit from it.

The media is crammed with cynics. You can make a nice living mocking everything else other people do (witness the TV program TMZ — a bunch of losers ridiculing celebs — and most of the biz bloggers out there). Cynics usually produce nothing, provide no value, and in fact exist only to tear things down. (Hollywood movies live and die by the cynical musings of the official critics out there… a totally-misguided or envious meme can get started trashing an otherwise good movie, and kill it dead.) (The film archives are crammed with great films that never got their due, or have cult followings, or suddenly become “classics” long after the studio that put them out crashed and burned because they weren’t Box Office Gold at the time of their release. The cynics win many of their battles, because they let others take all the risks.)

They are vain losers, and work best under conditions that protect their cowardice. (To your face, nicey-nice. Behind your back, clever put-down artist.)

One of the first rules of living a good life, or of enjoying a good career…

… is to jettison the more obnoxious cynics from your inner circle.

It’s a drastic move that can alienate families and friends… but I can tell you that none of the hugely successful people I know will tolerate vicious cynics for very long. Questioning authority and assumptions is fine. Even expressing the occasional “God, they ALL suck” rant is an accepted part of associating with humans.

But the dedicated cynic brings a massive payload of bitterness, petty jealousy, and Schadenfreude (“delight in the misfortune of others”) to everything they touch. They will hate you for succeeding (cuz they never can), and rejoice in your blunders.

Gary Halbert and I developed this attitude we called “being an optimistic pessimist”… which meant we braced for the worst in any given project, rooted for the best results possible, and accepted what happened… knowing the only real measure was whether we did everything we could to make it successful.

We expected the worst from politicians and clients and lovers, and allowed ourselves to be pleasantly surprised when we got the best. We were cautiously skeptical of everything, because we knew that ideas, products, ads and professionalism had to pass muster in the real world, where not every effort is rewarded.

We were realists. But not cynical. We wanted to succeed.

A cynic hates success. They will chew through your happiness like termites on balsa wood. You don’t want them in your brainstorming mastermind groups, on your staff, or in your life if you can help it. If you can’t avoid them, try to manage them. (I enjoy confronting them with questions on what they would do in the same situation. Not what they wouldn’t do — what they would DO. This usually shuts them up… because actually sticking their necks out and attempting any proactive movement is the last thing they want. They are not players. They’re hecklers.)

Sociopaths. I know you’ve read about sociopaths before. There are currently multiple books out there by shrinks seeking to explain sociopathology to the layman… and while I haven’t read most of them, I’ve seen many of the authors interviewed, and I imagine the books are quite good.

However, most of what you discover about sociopaths is irrelevant unless you’re an FBI profiler or cop on the tail of a mass murderer.

Here is my short explanation, on how this pathology matters to regular people and entrepreneurs:

First, there is confusion (even among psychiatrists) on what a sociopath is, and how it differs (or does not differ) from a psychopath. So don’t get caught up in the intricacies of definitions. (At one point, there seemed to be a strict difference — sociopaths were like biker gangs, who just defied social norms… and psychopaths murdered people without remorse. But that’s been muddled, because exact treatment options keep coming up short. The human mind is a deep ocean of wonder and horror, and we’re nowhere near to understanding it very well yet.) The term “sociopath” seems to now be accepted as covering a wide range of dangerous minds.

So, here’s a decent “working” definition for entrepreneurs: Just consider these 3 types of sociopath…

Type #1. The “pure” sociopath, either through brain malfunction or some kind of trauma, simply has no conscience. To him, other people are just like furniture — useful at times, and nothing to get attached to. If he hurts you, it’s no big deal unless there are consequences for him. Otherwise, there is nothing in his system to make him feel guilt, or shame, or remorse at using someone, and then abandoning them when their usefulness is gone.

Emotionally, they’re flat-liners.

The “tweak” to be highly aware of here… is that because they have no scruples about taking advantage of others, they become very attuned to how charm and persuasion can be a tool for getting what they want.

So they get very, very good at it. They study human behavior (because they can’t “feel” love or hate or even simple joy), and employ every trick in the book to win favor, friendship and even the love of those they seek to use.

Apparently, pure sociopaths have always been over-represented in positions of power and influence. They’re a tiny fraction of any given general population… but because they don’t care if they hurt people (and because Nature’s got a sense of grim humor and has given them above-average intelligence), they can rise up in almost any organization without getting “outed” as a monster.

I hear that Wall Street is one big sociopath meeting ground.

So, what do you do to protect yourself? First, don’t get fooled by people with impeccable manners and loads of charm. I’ve run into more than my share of sociopaths in life, and I’ve actually enjoyed being around them (before I realized what I was dealing with)… while we were doing things they liked to do. It took me many painful years to realize that our “friendship” was really a one-way street.

Eventually, I learned a simple trick: If I suspected someone was employing charm and being fun as a tactic to get something… I proposed asking them to do something for me that held no benefit to them. This kind of request startles sociopaths — they first look for a way that faking being interested, or actually performing the “favor”, will pay off for them. Like, maybe they can use the request to further the ruse that they’re good, fun and helpful (so they can weasel their way further into the group or situation)… or by getting info they can use later to steal, cheat or otherwise benefit.

When they realize there’s nothing in it for them, they tend not to follow through. The same way they wouldn’t do a favor for a dog. And they’ve been outed.

These hard-core mofo’s are tough to identify, because they’re good at lying… and good at telling you what they think you want to hear. They’re like “Human Whisperers”… they observe humans the way horse whisperers observe and get into the heads of horses… and they can be very, very good at passing themselves off as caring, loving people.

Eventually, you’ll be able to see what happened in the rear view mirror, once they’ve tossed you aside and moved on to their next project. They don’t all murder and eat their victims. But, like Bernie Madoff and other scamsters, the carnage they create can devastate lives.

Don’t go all nutso and start imaging everyone around you is a vile sociopath looking to manipulate you. However, be aware that in business the chances are high that you’ll run into one eventually (and maybe a whole bunch of them, in certain markets).

It’s better to learn to spot them early, and avoid the chaos they sow, than to figure it out later while picking up the pieces.

Type #2: There are folks out there who do feel shame, guilt and even remorse at what they do…

… but they go ahead and do it anyway.

They may not study sociopaths, but they end up using many of the same tricks. They’re users. They can create havoc in your life, stealing your mate, embezzling from your biz, trashing your reputation for fun, working deals behind your back while insisting they’re your best pal.

They just feel bad about it later.

Here’s how to spot them: They do bad things… from petty to serious… and lapse into depression over the guilt. However, they never try to FIX what they’ve broken.

This is a case of avoiding responsibility to the nth degree… and it’s a deal-killer for anyone thinking clearly about the ramifications of associating with these types. By feeling guilty, they think they’ve paid a reasonable “penalty” for their misdeeds. The guilt is their punishment, and why are you making it worse by demanding they also make amends and pay for damages? You bad person, you.

I believe that shame does play a role in inter-personal behavior. I think we need to re-introduce some serious shaming on our political and business leaders, and I think individuals could use a dose of it when they get out of line. (Looking at you, naughty celebrities.)

Still, too much free-floating shame is counter-productive. And guilt… well, guilt is just stupid. Guilt, to me, is setting up camp on the path of life, and obsessing on something you have no control over.

The professional’s way of looking at shame and guilt is more productive: You quickly recognize when you’ve caused harm. You fix what you can, and pay what you owe, immediately. And… here’s the kicker… you TAKE PROACTIVE STEPS TO DO BETTER NEXT TIME.

You don’t promise to do better. You don’t cry and insist it was all an emotional mistake.

You actually DO better, next time. You get the education, the new skills, the obliteration of bad habits, the instilling of good new habits… whatever it takes. No matter how painful or expensive it is to create real change in your behavior (not your ability to make bigger promises)…

… that’s what you do. You actually become a better person.

I know you don’t wanna hear that. No one does — it runs counter to our essentially selfish inner-nature. But you do it anyway.

Type #3: Look, being charming, telling little white lies, manipulating others…

… we all do this to some extent in life. You smile and say nice things to loathsome relatives, you praise your boss even when you’re fairly sure he’s just said something dumb, you needle your buddies until they finally agree to help you move or attend the Big Game despite not initially wanting to.

Halbert — after realizing that doctors were treated with deference at hotels — started checking in as Dr. Finegold… a personality he created just to get past the usual bullshit he’d encountered getting things done with a hotel staff. He never pushed the concept very far, but it was stunning how much he could accomplish (like getting meals sent up faster, and phone calls put through instantly) just by letting the staff think he was a doctor. (And it didn’t always work.)

But it was an insight to how easy it can be to manipulate people when you understand human behavior… and also have persuasion skills. (Side note: We also experimented with bribes — greasing the palms of clerks, bouncers, waiters, anyone who could sneak us past the time-wasting nonsense “normal” folks had to endure. We even tested dropping names — because we actually knew celebrities, say, who frequented certain joints like Spago’s. The results are startling, if you’ve never engaged in gaming systems before. Maybe I’ll write about it in another blog rant.)

There will always be traces of sociopathology in the people you deal with, live with, and love. We’re imperfect beings, and sometimes we take shortcuts to get what we want. (Like telling the wife you’re gonna be ten minutes late for dinner, when you know damn well it’s gonna be 45 minutes… because you know you’d get an argument with the truth, and you’ll skate with the fudged number.) (God, you should feel SO guilty over shenanigans like that.)

And, if you desire success (in biz or love), you’ve just got to get hip to spotting the real monsters from the regular folks. It takes effort and practice, and also requires that YOU toe a very ethical and responsibility-oriented line of action.

And one of the hardest behavior traits to get right is how to deal with…

Assholes. If we really lived in a black-and-white world, all assholes would be bad people, to be avoided at all costs.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

The range of assholeness… let’s call it The Azzhole Scale… is so variable that it’s almost impossible to nail down.

Many of my now-best-friends in the world were, at first, huge assholes. When I first met Halbert, he was shockingly arrogant, dismissive, self-absorbed and having way too much fun screwing with people’s heads. I liked him immediately, though, because I knew something about him. I’d read his first year’s worth of newsletters, which revealed him to be a “good” kind of prick — yes, he’ll say mean things to you, but he’s harder on himself. Quick to admit when he’s wrong, eager to get to the truth in any situation, and ecstatic when he encounters someone who can give as well as they take.

We got along so well, because we both had personalities loaded with “asshole” skills — vicious wit, intelligent refusal to put up with bullshit, a vast sense of humor with big laughs even when the joke was on us.

There’s some perverse piece of wetware in our brains… that makes us abhor people at first, who we later become bosom buddies with. Like kids needing to come to throwing punches, before becoming lifelong pals.

This doesn’t mean that some of the assholes out there aren’t actually despicable, evil bastards you need to avoid at all costs.

It does, however, mean that reality is a mixed bag… and you need to stay aware your entire life, and not be quick to judge others using flawed judgement standards. One man’s jerkiness is another man’s genius. Learn to see beyond the obvious.

It’s not easy understanding the unrelenting circus-and-horror-show that is modern life.

However, if you’re gonna succeed (and win at all parts of living large and happily), you need to begin right now.

There are truly nasty folks out there you need to steer clear of, or deal with (if you can’t get away) the same way you’d deal with a poisonous viper. You don’t win by bluffing that you’re hip. You gotta play the game at the level of your opponent… and GET hip.

I hope this little starter-list of understanding your fellow players helps. Remember, the game is already afoot.

Comments welcome, as always.

Stay frosty,